If there is anything that I feel that I need to preserve as I grow old, it is wonder The ability to find awe in the mundane, the seemingly bleak trenches of everyday existence How is it that a child is to able to see the sublime in the routine? To look at the ordinary and see what is extraordinary To paint the world with their vivid imagination To have boundless curiosity radiate through their being On a morning walk, during a cool summer morning, my attention is suspended by the rising sun piercing through the hazy clouds Wonder emerges as I see the birds gliding through the sky, singing ecstatically Soaring effortlessly into the horizon, they find reprieve in the towering trees Riches, wealth and power all pale in comparison to the awe and bliss found in Nature As I shed the veil of adulthood, I see the world once again as a child A world of wonder A world of infinite possibility
It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world. What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?
It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.
Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.
Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.
Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groanAlexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture
Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.
Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life. Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.
In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.
It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.
This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.
Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.
Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words.
Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.Roger Scruton
Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.
For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.
In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.
I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.
It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.
We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.
Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.
It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.
As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,
Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.
So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events?
While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.
Need for Accommodation
Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms.
This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’
Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.
As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,
The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.
Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.
Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.
Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.
This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.
While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.
In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.